This is the third collection of poems and prose by Lorna Smithers chronicling her dedication to the Brythonic god Gwyn ap Nudd and it takes her quest to interpret and re-present his mythology to deeper levels of significance. It also defines her path as an awenydd, engaging in visionary explorations and written evocations of her discoveries. The book is divided into a brief introductory section followed by six longer sections, each taking the reader through a different historical period. A major source for any study of Brythonic lore is the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen. This tale is often drawn upon here, in particular the episode in the tale where Arthur kills Orddu “the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch from Pennant Gofid”. The episode provides an imaginative frame for the chronology of Gatherer of Souls, spanning an immensity of time between the end of the last Ice Age to the present. The work opens with the migration into Britain as the ice begins to recede, led by a wise woman and her daughter, an already well-established matriarchal succession of witches who then take residence in the cave which they continue to inhabit until Arthur brings their line to an end. The closing piece of the book is a chilling present-day visionary confrontation in the cave on Nos Calan Gaeaf when the bottle containing Orddu’s blood is poured out and Arthur is confronted and defeated to bring the age of his imperium to an end.
If the killing of Orddu provides a mythic underlying theme for the volume, the role of Arthur in her death and his opposition to Gwyn ap Nudd, the implied father of Orddu and all her ancestors, provides the foregrounded mythic focus. The view of Arthur as a usurper of the old ways and conqueror of the gwiddonod – the giants, witches and other denizens of the world he brought to an end – is a theme that emerged in Lorna’s previous collection. It involves reconfiguring the heroic view of Arthur and viewing him as an archetype of the absolute ruler. So, in the final contemporary section of the present work, he returns “to make our country great again” which is about as up to date as you could hope to get in portraying a view of the Arthurian type in our own time.
As readers are taken through the successive ages covered by the work they will encounter much material gleaned from a knowledge of Brythonic lore that has been internalised and imaginatively re-shaped rather than simply recycled, much as the medieval tales in Welsh re-shaped Brythonic inheritance in a range of stories in prose and in verse to keep it alive for us to inherit. That lore tells not only of the emergence of Arthur as a power figure but presents Gwyn ap Nudd as a character who has retreated into the shadows, giving us only tantalising glimpses of his nature and the power he maintains in “keeping all the devils of Annwn from destroying the world”, as the Welsh tale has it. Lorna’s quest, then, is not simply one of discovery but also one of actively bringing Gwyn back into focus and out of the shadows to be recognised as the gatherer of the souls of the dead and Lord of the Otherworld.
The project includes re-telling stories from the Brythonic past, particularly those located in what Welsh medieval culture thought of as ‘The Old North’, the lands of Northern England and Southern Scotland where Brythonic culture made a last stand before retreating to Wales where the legends and myths were kept in the original language to perpetuate them in memory. So there is a substantial account of the story of Myrddin, not the ‘Merlin’ of later Arthurian stories but the figure on whom he was partly based, or with whom he was confused, by Geoffrey of Monmouth. This Myrddin ran wild in the Forest of Celyddon along what is now the border country between England and Scotland. Myrddin’s ‘madness’ when he flees to the forest after The Battle of Arfderydd, fought between Rhydderch and Gwenddolau, between christian and pagan, had also been incorporated into the Life of St Kentigern, but is reclaimed here as part of the narrative of the shift away from the old ways and the old gods to the new world which became medieval christendom.
It is true that this process began far away from Britain in Constantinople in the eastern part of the divided Roman Empire, when the emperor Constantine embraced christianity in the year 312 of the current era and, with more force, by later emperors such as Justinian who made christianity the official religion in 380 and Theodosius who began to actively suppress what he called paganism in an edict of 391. But the western Empire was slower to follow this change and by the time it was widespread in the West the Romans were leaving Britain, so the drama was played out over a longer period both within elite Romano-British culture (which Arthur represents) and within native Brythonic culture, further complicated by the arrival of Anglo-Saxon and Norse invaders who themselves underwent their own transition from paganism to christianity as time went on. This marks out Britain as a particularly conflicted arena as the emerging christian world view pushed for dominance. Figures such as Arthur become emblematic of the changes taking places while Myrddin, originally a victim of those changes, later becomes incorporated as Merlin in the Arthurian ethos.
So re-claiming what has been lost, and what was transformed, is a necessary part of a re-connection with the age of the old gods in our own time when spiritual allegiances are shifting and the character of Arthur as an opponent of that old order can be re-evaluated to restore the focus on Gwyn ap Nudd. This is Lorna’s project which also involves an animistic view of the world reflected in some of the work collected here. ‘The Shield of Rheged’, for example, is ingeniously addressed by re-telling the story of one of the ravens who were depicted on it and relating the image to other raven stories in the Brythonic canon. In more recent times, the folklore of Lorna’s own area is retold in stories such as the eerie tale of ‘The Lady of Bernshaw Tower’ in which a woman who might be regarded as a spiritual descendant of Orwen and Orddu, but who also has a negative ‘other’, shape-shifts and rides with The Hunter. The final section of material set in the 21st century contextualises Brythonic sources in modern terms and focuses on what we have to do now to bring about “the ruins of Arthur’s Empire and clear the way for the next world”. If this is an ambitious and demanding task, the writings collected here display a personal commitment and an imaginative vision that makes it possible to think it can succeed.